Remember when you were young and your parents and teachers said you could be anything you wanted? I suspect that most of us bought this tale hook, line, and sinker, especially since we started hearing it just after the moment when we were being overpraised for going boom-boom in the toilet. Hell, this was about the same time we felt put upon if there wasn’t a parade every time we wiped our own ass! What else were we to think, except that the whole world revolved around us? We all naturally hold a Ptolemaic view of the world by the age of five.
Well, folks, I’m here to tell you, if you have not already figured it out, that you were duped! Not only is Santa Claus a historically amalgamated myth that has morphed into an over-indulgent authority figure with morbid obesity and the likely onset of Type-II diabetes but we have all been lied to about our life prospects.
One could dismiss this as an act of kindness on the part of our parents. After all, they only wanted what was best for us. Ignore the fact that they fed our minds with ambitions just as likely to pay off as the Powerball. From their perspective it seemed possible. Of course, they were blinded by bias when it came to their little princes or princesses. They did it out of love; so, maybe all should be forgiven? It’s also possible they even believed what they were saying!
Yes, it is very possible that your parents grew up believing the lies their parents told them. By the time they were adults, had kids, and were working at that soul-crushing job across town, maybe they convinced themselves that the things they had been told did not come true because they did not quite measure up. Maybe they didn’t get enough schooling? Maybe they didn’t take advantage of all the good chances that came their way? Maybe it was this decision or that–totally their own fault–which stood in the way of them being anything they wanted to be? Of course, they are not going to let you make the same mistakes! So, they pass on the same lies–believing it the truth–and then double down on the education myth while encouraging you to “be a leader”, join clubs, and to generally excel at everything to which you put your hand. Yes, it’s exhausting, but it will be worth it in the end. They just know it! Or, do they?
The reality is that they know no such thing. All they know is the myth of the meritocratic entrepreneurial society. Of course, if they stopped for a moment to analyze their decision-making they would see that they don’t really believe any of it. If they really believed that the cream naturally rises to the top, and that you and they are genetically endowed with that particular cream-like attribute, they would take no extraordinary measures to make your success a sure thing. In a society where natural talent is automatically and systematically rewarded there is no need to make sure your kid attends a better school than the family across the street. A natural talent does not need piano lessons or to practice boring scales. It should all come naturally, as the invisible hand intended.
Again, none of this is true, and the more parents work to better their kids’ chances of success the greater the cognitive dissonance should get when it comes to the American dream, or whatever else you choose to call it. However, that dissonance doesn’t come because humans have the finely tuned ability to believe logically opposite propositions.
When I was a kid I went to see the movie Dragonslayer. This is the kind of movie that appeals to a young boy. It had adventure, heroism, living up to one’s destiny, and ultimately the idea of justice, as displayed in the sacrifice of the princess. You see, the princess had learned that for years her name had been kept from the lottery which was used to choose a young woman to be sacrificed to the nasty dragon that lived under the mountain. Outraged the princess replaces all other names with her own, assuring that she will be chosen next. Her father is duly distraught and tries to declare the lottery invalid but the princess reaffirms the decision by revealing the long-practiced subterfuge. The princess is then led with great sadness to the place of sacrifice.
I will not reveal more of the movie. You should see it. I only use it to illustrate the extent to which parents will go to protect their children from the real world. How much more will parents protect their children from a system that limits their child’s future to being a janitor or a store clerk? How many lies will they tell themselves and others? How many strings will they pull behind the scenes while letting their children believe they’ve done it all on their own? How likely is it that they will believe that the opportunities afforded to those in the bottom quartile are the same as those provided to those in the upper quartile? The answer is that they will do all this and more without being paralyzed by any cognitive dissonance, and they will likely blame any failures their children experience on some sort of social injustice, because they really believe their children to be head and shoulders above everyone else.
What am I trying to prove here? Am I just trying to be a downer? No. In fact, I still believe that everyone should strive to make the most of their talents. I would even encourage people to strive to master things at which they are not naturally talented. Who knows, the hard work might pay off.
So, what am I trying to say, especially when it comes to the “workers of the world”? What I am trying to say is that we should give up on the myth of great success and strive more for the mean (the average), especially when it comes to feeding, clothing, and housing ourselves. This is a problem, though, because we live in a society so permeated by the myth of merit that we are creating a class of people that are effectively seen as useless: those at the bottom. We have created a wage structure where being merely competent does not get you enough to support yourself or a family. In fact, at the lower end of the economic spectrum having two breadwinners in the house is often not enough.
We have allowed the myth of merit, and its cousin productivity, to rule the roost when it comes to rewarding labor; and we ignorantly go to work every day thinking that if we just give our employer more time and effort that we will eventually be rewarded. The reality is that any extra time and effort you give, especially time and effort given off the clock, will be taken in the form of productivity and allocated to the owners of the business and to management. This has been the norm for the last forty years as the minimum wage has failed to keep pace with inflation, as unions have declined, and as worker rights have eroded under the withering attacks of business lobbyists.
Where does that leave you? Well, it leaves you at a crossroad. You can choose to continue being a sap or you can make some changes. What can you do in your quest to not be a sap? Well, the bad news is that there is directly little you can do about it because you are likely already among the majority of people who are getting the short end of the stick; that’s probably not going to change anytime soon. However, you can do a few things to make yourself feel better and, if you’re lucky, you might even get away with limiting your employer to a more modest labor benefit in exchange for your wages.
The first thing you need to do is wash your hands of the myths that compel you to comply with a fundamentally unjust distribution of income in the United States; more specifically, you must purge from your mind any idea that the United States is an equal opportunity society where merit is rewarded. This is a myth! The labor system of the United States will never benefit you the way it does the top 10% or 1%. If you want that kind of benefit you will need to play the lottery. And good luck! You’ll need a lot of it!
To break the myths that gird our economy it might help to remember this: no matter how fast the economy grows income growth is effectively a zero sum game. In short, if you make more money it means someone else has to make less money. Forget all that silliness about growing the pie or a rising tide lifting all boats. If any of this were true employers would not be so parsimonious when it comes to wages, and they would not be perpetually looking for ways to replace us with machines and software.
Second, think of ways to undermine the benefits that accrue to business owners and management, but do so without jeopardizing your basic needs.
Getting rid of the myths is relatively easy, although talking about them publicly can be problematic. These myths have an almost religious hold on our culture. Questioning them is tantamount to kicking mom in the face and spitting on the apple pie. So, if you do talk to other people about it, try to be subtle.
Developing ways to deny business owners and management the full value of your labor is a little more complicated. Below I suggest a few ideas but, again, you want to be careful. There is no sense in jeopardizing your basic needs just to make a point. I think Jesus said it best, “Be as wily as a serpent but as gentle as a dove.”
- Lie to those who employ you. Never let an employer know who you are or what you want. Always keep them in the dark, as much as is possible in this day and age. The more information an employer has about you the more reasons they will have to fire you or to load you up with work. Be a black box, and if you are forced to give away information tell them what you know they want to hear, whether it’s true or not. They should be given just enough information to keep you on as an employee but not enough to think they can further exploit you. Honing a reputation for being barely competent but very reliable is your best bet.
- Do not work hard. Working hard is for saps. Really, it is! You should only work up to the level of bare competence. You can even work smart. But never, ever work hard. In fact, your goal should be to work only as hard as required to keep your job and no more. (see movie Office Space) If you find your job lacks challenge and you can get the work done in half the time allotted then you will need to become an expert in the art of loafing. The best way to achieve this goal is to get assigned to tasks that are not heavily monitored and that are very difficult to assess. Remember, monitoring and assessing employees costs money. If you can, volunteer for work you know you can do twice as fast as everyone else, and that is loosely monitored, then do the work quick and spend the rest of the time on that second draft of your novel. A lot of jobs, unfortunately, require that people work in an assembly-line fashion. For example, if you work on the food line at McDonald’s there is very little chance of goofing off once the work is done. In this case you may have to do something more subversive: slow down.
- Yes, slow down. It’s a time-honored practice and it should be revived by everyone who works a job that is heavily monitored. Are you waiting tables? Count to sixty in your head before taking or delivering that next order. There are many tales of American slaves breaking tools to deny their owners the value of their labor. Why not you? Be careful, though. Remember, you may want to keep the job. Breaking a tool, or even making it look like the tool is not working right, is a means to an end: that is, slowing down the pace of work. You don’t want the work to stop completely; your employer would go out of business. Some might object that this makes their job harder. Really? You get paid by the hour. Your job already sucks. Who cares how “hard” it is? What you are really saying is that it takes you longer to achieve the objectives of your employer, that x number of widgets are being produced instead of 2x widgets. That’s exactly what you want. Think of it like this. You are still getting paid for eight hours but you are producing half of what you were producing before. So, you have deprived your employer of half of your productivity. Note: I would not recommend going as high as a fifty percent slow down; that’s just greedy. Again, the goal is to slow things down, not stop them altogether. Long live Tyler Durden!
- Learn to make excuses, especially when you can blame a manager. You should know your job better than your manager, and hope that you get assigned a manager that is less competent than his/her position demands–not a tall order. During review time you can point to broken processes and stupid things the manager has done to show that you are not completely at fault for your lack of productivity. To insulate yourself even more you should become politically active. Make friends with people above your manager and outside your department. Also, make sure you are liked by your fellow employees. If you are not liked by your fellow drones this is something management can use against you. They might say, “Does not work well with others.” Politics is where a lot of your daily effort should be directed because being able to complain about broken processes or bad management practices will only get you so far. Complaining or blaming too much will get you tagged as someone who is just not willing to “overcome and adapt” to the environment. Be careful, if you want to keep the job. By the way, the best reason to play politics and make friends at work is so it is easier to move on to the next job. References are indispensable when moving from one job to the next.
- Develop alternative sources of income. If you work 40 hours a week you don’t want to spend more time working. However, if you have an avocation like music, art, or repairing cars or computers, then use that to pad your savings. You like that stuff. Why not make a little money off it? Furthermore, eventually, you will be fired, laid-off, or get too sick or old to work. Having something else to do will not only provide you with a little extra money but may help you maintain your sanity during the down times. However, never contemplate starting your own business! This is fool’s gold. You might as well take a couple years of your salary and buy lottery tickets because you will have just as good a chance of winning the lottery as succeeding at your own business. Stick with the day job.
- Enjoy life. This might seem cliched and platitudinous but anyone with a few gray hairs knows what I’m talking about. It’s like the old joke about the guy who goes to the doctor and the doctor says, “Hey, if you stop eating doughnuts you will live five years longer.” The guy pauses for a minute to ponder the advice and then replies, “Yea, but won’t that mean five more years of not enjoying doughnuts?” Of course, enjoying life will be very difficult if you are still buying into the myth of the meritocratic society and the accompanying pursuit of filthy lucre. To enjoy life at the bottom end of the socio-economic scale will require re-orienting yourself to things like brewing your own beer, playing Monopoly, and watching Doctor Who with friends. Maybe you can turn your viewing of Doctor Who into a drinking game using that fresh batch of brew?
I could go on and on with advice, but I think it’s better if people figure out their own ways to “stick it to the man.” Only you can decide what level of risk you want to take on when it comes to your livelihood. However, it is clear–at least to me–that if you are walking into your workplace pie-eyed and ambitious then you are being a sap. So, stop it! Give as little as possible and take as much as they’ll give you. After all, you are only doing to your employer what all businesses do to their customers: giving them the least amount of product or service for the maximum amount of price.
Happy Holidays! Have a great new year!